Posted On: January 26, 2009

Bed-Sharing May Be Responsible for Surge in Infant Suffocations

A nationwide study found that the rate of infants died of unintentional suffocation and strangulation in their first year of life has quadrupled between 1984 and 2004, reports Rob Stein of the Washington Post. Federal health officials are concerned that this surge of fatalities may be due to the increased number of mothers sharing beds with their babies.

Although bed-sharing fosters mother-child bonding and facilitates breastfeeding, it poses serious risks to babies. Deaths can occur when the adult rolls over a baby, or when blankets or pillows get in the baby’s airway.

A national survey found that bed-sharing was more common among younger and poorer women; another study shows that death rate from accidental strangulation and suffocation was three times as many among African Americans as Caucasians. This difference can be due to "economics" or "cultural beliefs," Stein quotes Clinton-Reid, chairperson of a committee that reviews infant deaths for the District's medical examiner. Some mothers just cannot afford a crib, and others believe that babies are safer sleeping with them.

For those who would like to have a crib for their babies but cannot afford one, there are nonprofit organizations that give away free cribs. As for mothers who want to continue bed-sharing with their babies, they should consult with their doctors for safer ways to sleep with their babies. Some general rules of thumb include the following (a more extensive list can be found on kidshealth.org):
• Put babies to sleep on their backs. (This has helped cut the number of deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.)
• Leave the baby’s head uncovered.
• Keep the bed away from draperies or blinds to prevent the baby from getting strangled by the cords.
• Ensure the mattress fits snug in the bed frame to prevent the baby from getting trapped in between.

It used to be taught that babies should be put to sleep on their stomachs, the thought being that they would be less likely to choke on regurgitated stomach contents. But the latest advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to lay the baby on its back. The educational program is called "back to sleep." Experts now recognize that many deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome happened when babies turned their faces into their bedding and suffocated.

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